Pierre Klossowski: Encounter

By Wang Yang, translated by Long Xingru, Image Courtesy of Gladstone Gallery

Time tells the story of art like a book that is drowsily skimmed through: the odd paragraph might be skipped now and again, but not the main characters. The Klossowski brothers, like the van Eycks, are one such neglected page. The eye would likely be drawn to the more renowned Balthasar Klossowski, whose style seems rather anchored to adolescence. In contrast, his elder brother Pierre weaves for us, in a measured tone, a sort of grown-up fairy tale.

Pierre Klossowski was born in Paris in 1905, into a formerly aristocratic Polish family. His father Erich Klossowski was an art historian and critic, acquainted with the leading names of European culture at the time: the litterateur Andre Gide, the painters Pierre Bonnard and Henry Matisse, the publisher Maser: the Klossowski salon was Pierre's first classroom. When his parents divorced in 1919, his mother remarried the poet Rainer Maria Rilke; at the hands of his stepfather, Pierre received a deep cultural education – particularly in literature – which surpassed his contemporaries. And although the twists of fate barred Pierre from the ranks of the aristocracy, an inner, spiritual sense of nobility never left him. At the beginning of 2018, the Gladstone Gallery in Brussels curated a solo exhibition of Klossowski featuring many of his representative paintings.

Klossowski never downplays the eroticism in his works – sometimes to the discomfort of female or conservative viewers, who found his explicitly nude scenes vulgar or clichés of ‘xx philosophy’. Despite criticism and opposition, he found his way to a style of his own: retracing the traditions of Mannerism and Baroque art, he captured the essence of these styles, while abandoning what was exaggerated, dispirited and extravagant. Strictly speaking, his artworks remain within the realm of “on-canvas”, with a rather singular, austere technique: the matte effect of colored pencils minimizes the lustre of pigment, which serves to highlight the subjects. The strokes are made meticulously, creating linear, unhurried rhythms. In a semi-enclosed space setting, a concise, elegant colour tone alters the sense of “sketching” created by the use of pencil. Rationality is concealed: even vivid, living figures (such as the human body) are transformed by being treated in a simplified, geometric fashion. The effects of light and shade are minimized, and perspective is diluted, within a self-consistent painting system. Pierre Klossowski comes across as a philosopher who thinks with his paintbrush, pondering between the world and human nature. He pays limited attention to modern art, and yet remains a significant figure within it.

Sometimes great minds mature slowly and sedately. Images and texts, painting and literature, are interwoven calmly within Klossowski's works. Imaginative contours emerge in his literary pieces, while visual elements can be vividly depicted. He used to declare that the obsession of image was the stimuli for him and let the “desire” for creating images to emerge. In the artist's perception, deliberate and casually illustrated nudity points to implicit madness, yet the appearance of nudes carries a defiant tone. Clothing is abandoned selectively, or otherwise,displayed elsewhere; bodies that are supposed to be naked are partly covered. Mere bodies can't conceal the inner lust. In La Belle Empoisonneuse, the artist gradually unfolds the relationship between violence, conspiracy, death, sin and sex, beneath the representation of eroticism. His narratives incorporate a surrealistic vocabulary, while erasing morality and subtext, affectation and hypocrisy. We the viewers are confronted not with nudes but with humanity, undressed – something which we can only site in the grey area between goodness and villainy.

As an artist who employs painting to decipher his textual works, Pierre Klossowski's atelier is a study, his strokes are characters. Illustrations in books are limited, but painting can expand texts into the realm of visual, aesthetic joy, and free them from the limitations of reading. These images are not just comments or descriptions of a story: they are neither representational, narrative or merely descriptive. Klossowski also subtly transforms our attitude towards sex: by questioning it, he forces us to reconsider our grasp of it, forcing the painting to evolve in our conception. “Robert”, which may be a pseudonym, is the central character of many of Klossowski's paintings and literary works. He dresses like a modern lady, and wonders about the difference between reality and illusion. Parallel bars bind her hands like instruments of torture; her twisting body defies this overwhelming force, but her facial expressions remain self-possessed, indifferent even, as if narcissistic or daydreaming. A touch of warmth rises gently from a frozen point. As Jean Baudrillard had brilliantly pointed out: “There is, however, a great difference between real and affected indifference: only the former touches us. But it is very rare almost as rare as beauty or madness.”

A nostalgic character, Klossowski does not particularly like modernity. He usually looks coldly on contemporary life and seems eager to return to antiquity. Many of his paintings take inspiration from classical Greece and Rome. Charmide se soumettant à l'incantation de Socrate, for instance, is based on Plato’s text. Charmide is a pretty youth; Socrates a gracious, wise old man. The “spell” here is a proverb conferred by the sage and it takes us into the realm of “Sophrosyne”, a Greek term with multiple meanings: rationality, temperance, moderation, prudence, introspection, benevolence; the opposite of arrogance, narrowness, short-sightedness and greed. In Klossowski's paintings, Sophrosyne refers particularly to temperance: one ought to receive, modestly, the blessings of virtue and goodness, as well as compliance to the inner rule of harmony and moderation; on the other hand, one should constrain impulses, evil intentions, and capricious dissolution.

The painter sites himself at the origins of painting, confronting an illusion of wholeness with unabridged figures; he eschews materiality and turns towards inner purity. The reticent figures collude with our better natures. Though he questions morality, and perhaps leaves us without an answer, Klossowski pierces cleanly through to the soul.



Charmide se soumettant à l'incantation de Socrate, pencil on paper, 175.6 × 154.9 cm 1985


Exhibition view of “Pierre Klossowski” at Gladstone Gallery, Brussels, 2018


Exhibition view of “Pierre Klossowski” at Gladstone Gallery, Brussels, 2018


Exhibition view of “Pierre Klossowski” at Gladstone Gallery, Brussels, 2018